In ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,’ a very different impossible-missions force gets the assignment - The Boston Globe (2024)

Based on a true story from World War II, “Ministry” depicts a daring British raid in West Africa against the Nazis. Actually, “depicts” isn’t the right word. It embroiders, stretches, reworks, and plays fast and loose with that story. Actually, “fast” isn’t the right word. Surprisingly draggy, “Ministry” plays slow and loose with the story.

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In ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,’ a very different impossible-missions force gets the assignment - The Boston Globe (1)

Operation Postmaster, the mission the movie is based on, really did happen; and some embroidery, if not stretching and reworking, is to be expected, maybe even welcomed. The idea of a Guy Ritchie docudrama does not quicken the pulse. That said, the Nazis didn’t conquer the Canary Islands or West Africa. A group of senior advisers did not threaten Winston Churchill with removal from office if the operation failed. Past a certain point, all the inaccuracies become a distraction. If the movie were better, they’d be harder to notice.

So here’s the assignment for this impossible-missions force. The Axis have some ships on an island off the coast of Nigeria, servicing U-boats. Britain is on the verge of defeat (it is?) because of all the tonnage being sunk. “If we lose here, we lose control of the Atlantic,” a character says.

A rag-tag group is assembled to slip in and sink the ships. The mission is “unsanctioned, unauthorized, and unofficial,” announces Churchill. Let’s just say Rory Kinnear shouldn’t expect to win an Oscar for playing the PM, the way Gary Oldman did, for “Darkest Hour.” Ian Fleming, James Bond’s creator, figures as a character, too. Even as it trades on history, “Ministry” flouts it.

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In ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,’ a very different impossible-missions force gets the assignment - The Boston Globe (2)

Bits and pieces of other movies surface, if not float. “Casablanca” and “The Dirty Dozen” get alluded to; and if you want to think of “Ministry” as a poor-man’s anglophile version of “Inglourious Basterds” (Churchill makes an appearance there, too, remember), you wouldn’t be wrong.

“Ministry” offers all kinds of collateral nonsense to pad the main nonsense. An attack on the Canaries (it’s on the way, after all). An unnecessarily elaborate bag switcheroo on a train. A well-timed appearance by a U-boat. A fancy costume ball, which gives Eiza González (“3 Body Problem”) an excuse to wear a slinky-skimpy Cleopatra costume and sing a very bad version of “Mack the Knife.”

Her character’s on the island to help set things up for the ungentlemanly warriors’ arrival. They’re led by Henry Cavill (Superman in various D.C. movies). How to do justice to his beard? The Schweppes guy meets Zack Galifianakis. Henry Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians”) has a beard, too, though his is less architectural. He mainly puffs on his pipe and blows stuff up. Alan Ritchson plays a seriously buff Dane whose favorite Marvel character would appear to be Hawkeye. Alex Pettyfer and Hero Fiennes Tiffin (Ralph’s nephew) round out the crew. Overseeing things back in Whitehall is Cary Elwes. He smokes a pipe, too.

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The actors get to say things like “The first domino falls,” “We’re outnumbered 200 to five,” and “Remember, gentlemen, try to have fun.” You’ll not be surprised to learn that four writers are credited with the script. Cavill speaks that “have fun” line. It’s one of the few times he doesn’t end a sentence with “old boy.” The hopeless-tosh factor in “Ministry” is considerable. If the upper lips here were any stiffer you’d think facial rigor mortis had set in. Playing veddy-English understatement off against overblown visuals is the key to the movie’s humor (if not wit).

“Overblown visuals” is a euphemism for violence. Nazis suffer death by — in alphabetical order — arrow (you thought I was kidding about Hawkeye), ax, explosion, grenade, knife, machine gun, mortar, rifle, submachine gun. It’s nice that the good guys have such good aim and so well-stocked an arsenal, but still.

★★

THE MINISTRY OF UNGENTLEMANLY WARFARE

Directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Arash Amel, and Ritchie; based on “Churchill’s Secret Warriors,” by Damien Lewis. Starring Henry Cavill, Eiza González, Alan Ritchson, Alex Pettyfer, Cary Elwes. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 120 minutes. R (It’s not even the extent of the violence so much as the nauseating casualness of it). In English and German, with subtitles.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.

In ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,’ a very different impossible-missions force gets the assignment - The Boston Globe (2024)
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